“Would you and Rich be interested in going on the test run for a new food tour a friend of mine is starting here in Seville?” an expat pal asked me a few years ago.
Tough work, but somebody has to do it!
“If it’ll help,” I replied graciously, thinking Hot damn! This is gonna be good.
And it was. Rich and I met up with Lauren Aloise and a small group of fellow volunteers to spend three hours strolling through the city’s back streets, nibbling and sipping along the way.
We had fabulous food and a marvelous time. If I had a complaint at all, it was that I was so stuffed by the end of the tour that I couldn’t do justice to the final round of tapas. Since then, Lauren and I have kept in touch, and I thought her story would be fun to share here, as an example of how one American woman built a new life for herself in Spain.
What drew you to Spain?
I spent my junior year of college between Granada and Buenos Aires, and loved both. That said, I saw very little of Spain and left with a very basic understanding of the culture and cuisine. Despite living with a host family, my experience only just skimmed the surface. I was focused on bettering my Spanish (and enjoying Granada's amazing nightlife!) and my host mother was a terrible cook. I left Spain thinking that Spaniards didn't eat meat (I only had it once while there!). I never planned to return to live here, but I studied Spanish as a second major, and at the end of my last semester, my professor recommended the Auxiliar de Conversación program [training to work as an English language assistant in Spain]. At the same time, my boss at a restaurant I was working at kept urging me to spend time in Spain to learn all I could about Spanish food and wine — he was convinced it would be the next big thing and that it would give me a leg up in the hospitality industry when I returned. So I applied for the program and packed my suitcases!
You had no intention of moving to Spain permanently?
That's right, I came with the intention of spending a year or two in Europe to learn about different cuisines. But I met my husband within a couple weeks of arriving, and that caused me to stay in Seville. I met his parents pretty early on in the relationship and really bonded with his mother over food. She taught me that simplicity is key, that Spanish home cooks never measure, and shared her best recipes with me. I also learned patience (Spanish classics aren't complicated, but often cook over many hours) and to make the most of a small kitchen (hers is tiny -- and so is mine!).
What inspired you to start your food and travel blog, Spanish Sabores?
I was a part-time English language assistant and gave private English lessons, but I fiercely missed the hospitality industry I'd always been a part of. Since I couldn't work legally, I decided to start writing about food and travel on the web. I had a couple of blog failures before starting Spanish Sabores! But I've always loved writing, so blogging came easily, and I also loved the challenge of learning about everything else involved — from web design, to SEO, to photo editing.
How did that lead to launching Devour Tours?
After I got married I knew I needed to get back into my career in hospitality and tourism — but we were in the middle of a recession, and jobs were few and far between. My husband and I decided to take a chance and move to Madrid, so we bought a bus ticket and left on an adventure. He started a company right away, offering software services for renewable energy facilities. I started freelance writing about food and travel, and gave cooking classes. One day I found an ad for a food tour in France and thought it sounded perfect. Food tours combine amazing food, local history and culture, and support for small businesses — what's not to love? I could step away from the computer and actually show people the types of things I was already writing about. So I just dove in and created a website and a few experiences. Today Devour Tours is in six cities: Seville, Granada, Malaga, San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Madrid.
Our mission is to connect curious travelers with local food and communities in a way that helps culture thrive. We'd love to take our mission beyond Spain to other incredible food destinations. In the age of huge chains and the "hipsterization" of traditional neighborhoods, the places that make our cities unique are disappearing. I hope to be a small part of telling those stories and helping them survive.
What do you love most about Spanish food?
We keep it simple in Spain. We take an incredible ingredient and do as little as possible to it. Maybe a drizzle of olive oil, a splash of sherry vinegar, or perhaps just a few flakes of sea salt. It's very much a quality-focused food culture.
Could you share a recipe with my readers?
One of my favorites is my mother-in-law’s recipe for salmorejo, a cold soup that's gazpacho’s thicker, creamier cousin. See recipe and video.
What advice would you give Americans who are coming to Spain for the first time?
I would recommend going slow, mixing big cities with some smaller villages, and coming back again and again. As for the food, be open minded and take a look at what the locals are eating before ordering. Don't expect lots of seasoning and sauces — enjoy the taste of the ingredients! And to kick everything off on the right foot, take a food tour! It'll set you up with context and tips for the rest of your trip.
Have you been on a memorable food tour — anywhere in the world? I'm always thinking ahead to future trips, and would love to hear suggestions in the comments below.
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This interview just appeared on the popular expat website, Costa Women. As it's a members-only site, I got special permission to reprint it here, so you'd all have the chance to see it.
Introducing Karen McCann
Did you find Spain, or did Spain find you?
I kind of stumbled across Spain on my way to Italy. Stopping in Marbella to visit friends en route to Florence, I found I really liked Andalucía. Then my husband told me he’d always wanted to learn Spanish. I believe his exact words were “How hard could it be?” (I think we all know the answer to that!)
And Seville, tell us more
From Marbella, I took a side trip to Seville and fell in love with the nutty mix of vibrant street life, age-old traditions and gorgeous 16th century architecture. Seville is like New Orleans, a grande dame who is magnificent long past her prime. And she has 3000 tapas bars; I have vowed to sample them all.
How did you become a travel writer?
In the US, I did more serious journalism, but that just doesn’t offer the same scope as describing what it’s like to eat fried flies in Thailand, buy a blowgun from a shaman in the Amazon, swap jokes with the Pope of Egypt or play with a baby bear in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. I’ve just written a book about my experiences in Seville, but these other stories kept trying to sneak into the book, so I started a travel blog to give them a place of their own.
Somewhere you have always wanted to travel but not visited yet?
There are tons of places I’d like to visit. A friend’s husband was once offered a job in Mongolia, and I immediately told her, “Lucky you! What an adventure!” She said, “Two years living in a yurt in a remote mining camp in Mongolia – what part of that sounds like fun to you?” I could see her point. It would make a great blog post, though.
Enjoy Living Abroad; what would you say is the most important part to settling in “abroad”
To me, the key is mentally unpacking your bags. Years ago I moved from San Francisco to Cleveland for my husband’s job, and by a weird coincidence, the woman across the street had just done the same thing. She told me every night she dreamed of California and woke up with a hideous shock at finding herself in Cleveland. I built a wonderful life in that community, but to this woman it was like being condemned to live in a yurt in a remote mining camp in Mongolia. She never mentally unpacked her bags, hated being there and soon departed for another life.
About Karen, a hobby you would like to share
When I arrived in Seville, a Spanish friend convinced me to join her art class because it would be good for my social life. Painting sessions were held in a cramped, poorly ventilated classroom in a high school that was kept under perpetual lockdown in a barrio an hour away by bus, on the edge of the one seriously scary and dangerous neighborhood in the province. The first thing I was told was never, ever to use the school bathrooms; I never did find out why, and it was probably best left that way. But I rediscovered a love of painting and have been doing it ever since.
Where are you from originally?
I’m a fourth-generation Californian. My great-great grandmother came from England to homestead in the Midwest, my great-grandmother travelled west by covered wagon and settled in Los Angeles, and my grandmother scandalized the family by becoming a silent film actress. My mother went to Stanford, and I grew up in what we called the Peninsula, a place the world now knows as Silicon Valley.
Something we wouldn’t necessarily know about Karen
I once joined a circus. I was stranded in a small California town with some college friends, and at a coffee house I met a teenager in a pith helmet who told me he was in town with the circus and they needed some extra hands. Before I could say “big top” I had a job selling popcorn when the regular popcorn lady was busy working as a clown. The job paid $35 a week, and I had a shot at becoming an apprentice clown. It was tempting, but in the end, I went back to college.
If you were struck on a desert Island what would you have to have with you?
Books. After that, maybe food and water.
What book do you have bedside your bed at the moment?
I am in the middle of No Time for a Siesta by Costa Woman June Wolfe. It’s great fun reading about someone else’s expat adventures, especially when written in June’s lively and engaging style. I like her title, which would never have worked for my book, as I always take a siesta. Waking up a second time each day, I feel like I have 14 mornings a week.
What do you snack on when you write?
I drink lots of tea. And every once in a while, when I feel my brain needs extra stimulation, I eat chocolate. I don’t always keep it around the house, and sometimes my husband finds me burrowing into the back of the cupboard in search of crusty old baking chocolate or half-stale cookies, muttering dementedly, “Come on, I have to get this chapter finished…” He’ll ask, “Should I be seriously alarmed? Or are you just on deadline?”
What other travel writers would you most like to sit next to at dinner?
Among others, I’d love to sit with Bill Bryson, an American who lived in England for many years. He once said, “Coming back to your native land after an absence of many years is a surprisingly unsettling business, a little like waking up from a long coma.” I find this true even if I’ve only been away six months. America is something you have to stay in practice for. I visit the US twice a year, because I don’t want to lose my touch, but I spend eight months a year in Seville, because that’s where my heart is.
You have a book coming out; tell us more
Dancing in the Fountain, which will be out this summer, is my book about Seville and how living abroad can be a wonderful opportunity to hit the re-set button on your life. The title comes from one blazing hot night when my husband and I were sitting on the edge of a big stone fountain. We began dabbling our feet in the cool water, and the next thing I knew, we were wading then dancing in the fountain. It’s actually legal to do this in Seville, but an old man passing by growled at us, “Hey you two, is that any way to behave? You wouldn’t do that back where you come from.” And that’s my whole point.
How can we find out more (website, Facebook, Twitter etc.)?
My website enjoylivingabroad.com has snippets from the new book and photos of some of the characters, including the mysterious L-F, whom we suspect of being in the witness protection program. My blog is part of the website, and that’s where you’ll find stories about my other travels. On my Facebook page www.fb.com/enjoylivingabroad I’m tracking the progress of my book, which is in the final rewrite stage and due back to my editor at the end of this month. I think I can make the deadline, but it’s going to take a lot of chocolate.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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